Thailand: Where to from here?

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First published 14th April, 2009

It seems for now that the red-shirt protests that gripped first Pattaya and then Bangkok over the last few days are over. Services, including trains, buses and flights, are running as normal. A heavy military presence remains in some parts of the city, but aside from that it is largely back to business as usual. So here's a round-up of what happened, with some links for further reading and suggestions for those who'd really prefer to avoid Bangkok altogether.


As we said in earlier commentary on Travelfish.org, the situation was very volatile, but we're glad to see that matters for now have calmed.

That said, the polarisation of Thai society and its underlying causes remain. It is very unlikely that the red shirts will get what they want but if they do, the yellow shirts, who closed down Bangkok's two airports last year, will take to the streets again.

What the hell is happening in Thailand?

Thailand faces a number of challenging issues in the coming months and years. As with the world at large, Thailand is suffering a severe economic downturn that was exacerbated by the airport shutdowns late last year. With tourism making up an estimated 10% of economic activity, the country is even more susceptible to damage, as foreign visitors cancel trips due to their own dire financial straits. The trouble over the last few days has further damaged the appeal of a country once viewed as a progressive, reliable and safe tourist destination.

Complicating matters further, Thailand's long-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is 81 and in fragile health. Both the military and police forces are heavily politicised -- generally the police are seen as tilting toward the red shirts while the army is yellow leaning.

At the risk of over-simplifying, the current beleaguered government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power with the assistance of a military coup, two party dissolutions, a new constitution, an activist judiciary, implicit royal backing, an ultra-nationalist crisis, six months of escalating street provocation, military insubordination, and an economically disastrous airport shutdown. It is not totally unreasonable that the red shirts, whose elected government was pushed out to make way for Abhisit, feel jilted. (On the other hand, Abhisit's main predecessor and the red-shirt figurehead Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected, but rode roughshod over many democratic institutions while he was in power.)

More information please!

We won't get into further details about the politics -- we're a travel website after all -- but the following are some good background pieces to recent events:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7998243.stm
http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/04/14/thailand.business/
http://uk.reuters.com/article/rbssFinancialServicesAndRealEstateNews/idUKSP48257020090414?sp=true
http://khikwai.com/blog/2009/04/14/twilight-of-the-idols/
http://inside.org.au/thailands-royal-sub-plot/
http://www.bangkokpost.com/
http://bangkokpundit.blogspot.com/

What does all this mean for your holidays?

While matters remain volatile, it is unlikely that renewed protests will break out in the very near future. We do though believe that the protesters will return. For independent travellers -- those with the flexibility to alter plans, itineraries and destinations at the drop of a hat, we'd say you should not change your plans. For those on organised tours however -- where your itinerary, destinations and dates are more or less set in concrete -- matters are still a bit concerning.

So don't cancel your holiday, but don't stick your head in the sand either. Keep an eye on the news and make the effort to keep up to date with what is happening in Thailand. Make sure you have travel insurance, and make sure it covers trip cancellation.

Looking for another option?

If you are leaning towards cancelling your trip, you have a few options to consider.

First, if your vacation dates are flexible and your bookings include Bangkok, push back your holiday as far as possible. If you have not already started to use the ticket, chances are you can push back the dates for a nominal fee. We have not yet heard whether hotels are refunding deposits on bookings at the moment, but we hope they will be. In a few weeks, or at worst months, we imagine Thai hotels are going to be offering ridiculously cheap rooms in a bid to lure people back. If you move back your flight dates but your hotel can't offer you another room at the new dates, hang in there as rooms will become available once the cancellations seriously begin. And you may be able to change the dates on your travel insurance, or extend it if you have already begun your trip.

Second, if you still want to come to Thailand and you can't change your dates but you can change your flight routing, consider flying into Singapore or Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, and then getting a low cost flight to the island of Phuket, or the hub city of Hat Yai in the Thai south. Bangkok Airways also flies into Ko Samui, another popular island, but their tickets are somewhat pricier. You could also get a flight into Chiang Mai. Note that it will probably – though it's not always – be cheaper for you to fly into Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and then get a low-cost flight rather than getting a long-haul direct flight to Phuket/Hat Yai.

Third, if you don't want to come to Thailand but you've still got to take a holiday as your dates are locked in – or you just want to come to the region – there are plenty of other options. Get a flight to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon or Hanoi, then travel overland or get connecting low-cost flights to where you want to go. If Travelfish had to pick the top three places you should see in Southeast Asia outside Thailand, they would be:

1) Luang Prabang in Laos: Yes, it's turning into a theme park, but it's still gorgeous. There's fantastic scenery, amazing wats (think Chiang Mai 30 years ago), lovely cafes and interesting shopping. It's also not difficult to get off the beaten path for a week or two once you are here.

2) Angkor Wat (basing yourself in Siem Reap) in Cambodia: Ditto re theme park, but better to see it now than in five years. And there are some fantastic hotels in Siem Reap, along with similarly great eating. After you've done the ruins of Angkor, fly or bus down to Phnom Penh, one of the last quiet – well, relatively – capitals in Southeast Asia.

3) Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam: This stunning island is on the verge of massive development if the Vietnamese government is to be believed but for now it's still a beach bum's paradise.

Don't write-off Southeast Asia altogether. The Bangkok debacle may be a blessing in disguise and get you to visit places you may otherwise have never considered – or a holiday in Thailand a little down the track at vastly discounted prices.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 1 comment(s)

  • This is still an interesting article, but it is seriously out of date at four years old.

    It would be useful to read an update.

    Regards,
    Owen

    Posted by Owen Jones on 6th May, 2013

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